by Townsend Walker
The two couples, Celeste and Charles, Peggy and Paul, were close all their lives. They grew up downstate, went to colleges in Connecticut and Massachusetts, settled in Manhattan, raised children. And they were most understanding, each having been intimate with the other, before and after their marriages.
This is how they would have told their stories, were they available to do so.
It was an accident, totally an accident. I’m not blaming anyone else for it. Though maybe I should. After all, why was I out in the woods in the first place? We were at our cabin in Vermont. The one we’d had since forever. After the long hike, after the hot tub, after the wine and crackers, after the shower, after the dinner of steak, potatoes, and wine, after Peggy accused me of sleeping with her son, Jason, and both men backed her up, I stormed out into the night.
I crashed straight ahead, slapped branches out of my face, trampled bushes down. I finally stopped, out of breath, pulled out my Marlboros, lit up, and leaned back against a stump.
About Jason: he is a hunk, and young, and good in bed, on the beach, in the woods, on the kitchen counter, and that one time to Ravel’s Bolero, my God. But to have the three of them make it seem a crime. I mean, the boy is 18.
The wine, plus thinking about Jason kept me warm, made me dreamy. I must have dropped off. Much later, I startled awake. I was freezing. Stamped around to get the blood flowing before I went back.
It crept up on me, the smoke. I turned around. Fire. Must have been that goddamn cigarette smoldering in the leaves. I found a large branch and frantically tried to rake dirt over the flames. Had them nearly covered when a gust of wind shot through the trees, sent an ember up and away. I chased it down, stomped it out. Then another ember flicked up and out, flew further. I charged ahead and squashed it.
Behind me, something crackled in the brush. Animal sound, puma, bear? I turned around slowly, branch held high against a prowling creature. Not an animal, a blaze. I thrashed at the fire with the branch.
After Celeste ran outside, I asked Charles why he couldn’t control his wife. He jabbed back, “Are you kidding?”
He thrust his face in mine, “Why can’t you control your son?”
“Are you forgetting to stoke the home fires, Charles?” Paul cooed, eyebrows raised theatrically.
Charles’s snorted, “Two open heart surgeries, I need to rest now and again, you dumb fuck.”
I had to stifle a giggle. Because if Charles calls what we did on the beach this afternoon as rest, I’d recommend his doctor to anyone. Hopefully, Paul wasn’t looking my way.
I called “bedtime” and trundled off to our room. Charles and Paul volunteered to clean up. I heard mumbling, grumbling, clanging pots, and some shouting as I washed my face, brushed my teeth, stripped my clothes off, and tumbled into bed, accompanied by what sounded like a thunderstorm. Hopefully, I’d be asleep by the time Paul got in. I was, but little good it did. He turned the light on and shook me awake.
“Sweetheart,” he said, as he squeezed my shoulder much harder than necessary, “Do you want to tell me what you and Charles have been up to?”
Seemed like he knew something, either Charles blabbed, or he caught my giggle and put two and two together. Wasn’t sure how to play this. I tried obliviousness. “What are you talking about?”
“Are you really going to lie there and lie?”
“That was good, Paul.”
I didn’t see it coming. He slapped me. Hard.
I scrambled to get out of bed. Got around the foot. He grabbed me from behind, big hands around my neck. Damn that hurt. Sharp pain in my windpipe, seized up, no air, not even to gasp. Saw myself in the mirror, tongue red, eyes black, bulging, then, oh my god, how disgusting, my wrinkled skin, after all the workouts and money I’d spent.
After last night’s storm, the sun was out, I came down into the kitchen to find Charles at the stove, fumbling around, trying to scramble an egg. Two had already been scrambled on the floor.
“Where the hell are the women?” He shouted when he saw me. “They’re supposed to fix breakfast.”
“Well, I can only tell you about Peggy, she’s slowly dragging herself out of bed. Celeste is your wife. You’re supposed to keep track of her.”
“I haven’t seen her since she lit out last night.”
“So, what’s keeping Peggy?” Charles said.
“Morning ablutions, I suppose.”
“Well, I’m hungry.” Charles ran up the stairs to our room. “Hey, Peggy, rise and shine.”
“Don’t bother her,” I shouted.
“Fuck you, Paul.”
There was no movement or sound for what seemed like ten minutes. Then I heard a roar. I grabbed the pistol, 9mm, my souvenir from Desert Storm. It made the girls feel comfortable to have one in the kitchen drawer here in the woods. I tucked it behind my back and raced up the stairs.
Charles had pulled the blanket down to Peggy’s waist. Pale body, topped by a blue-black necklace, crowned by bulging eyes.
“Dead, you mean. You didn’t want me to see her dead.”
He turned and ran toward me, hands out for my neck. “You strangled her. Why?”
I pushed him away. “Peggy and I had a fight, with too much to drink, she swallowed her tongue. I tried to help, I failed.” And I hung my head in my hands for effect. Took a deep ragged breath, raised my head, “Actually, it’s more your fault what happened, because of what you two got up to on the beach.”
Charles came at me again, “Oh no you don’t, I’m not taking the blame for this. You strangled her.”
I pulled the gun from my waist band and knew immediately that I’d made a major mistake. I’d never fired it, even back then. Why did I grab it? To scare him, back him off any thoughts about implicating me in Peggy’s death. But he was not scared, he stood there, grinning, daring. Before I got the gun pointed, it was out of my hand, on the floor, in his hand, I grabbed his hand, the gun went off, cleaved me clean through.
Of course, I made it look like murder/suicide. Give me credit. Paul and Peggy fought, he strangled her, and in remorse he shot himself. Later, they found Celeste’s remains in the charred clearing down in the valley.
There were so many calls to be made, arrangements to be tended to. Jason, the spark of the evening’s inferno, was there to help with his parents. A remarkably collected young man.
Fortunately, three concurrent deaths, if they can be labelled fortunate, happened in mid-summer, so there was sufficient time to arrange things and be back in front of my students at Columbia for the start of fall quarter. My quarter for teaching the English romantics. A wonderful lot of characters, whose personal lives tended, at times, to belie the sentiments they professed in their poems. And now, unfortunately, or fortunately, I was able to use both my recent losses and the feelings evoked by the poetry in my interaction with my students. Were they riper this quarter, or did they just seem so?
I took pride on being a model of discretion. No trysts in Morningside Heights or other student rendezvous in the city. I rented a somewhat modest one bedroom in Tribeca, convenient to the West St. Station. It was there that I suggested to Merry, yes, that was her name, and yes, she was, that a weekend at the cabin would be a lovely interlude for a student and her professor. We were cradled by the weather gods with temperatures and sun reminiscent of late August and warmed by the stanzas of Keats and Shelly.
It was Sunday afternoon, after rising late, doodling around the bed sheets, toast and coffee that I began to sprout a bit of Byron and in keeping with the tenor of my assumed youthful condition and appearance, proposed that I swim the four miles across the lake to Goat Island as Byron had the Hellespont, not as tremulous a waterway, but then he had 35 years on me. Merry protested, I insisted, she cautioned, citing our evening, night, and morning activities, I claimed ruddy good health and set out. About halfway across, I heard her behind me splashing clumsily in a rowboat, I redoubled my effort to stay ahead, prove my virility, then I had a heart attack, then my arms stopped moving, then my legs, then a cardiac arrest, then, actually there wasn’t another ‘then.’
* * *
Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence, and strong women. A short story collection, 3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies & other stories was published by Deeds Publishing in 2018. Winner of a Book Excellence Award, an Eyelands Award, a Silver Feathered Quill Award and a Pinnacle Award.
A novella, La Ronde was published by Truth Serum Press in 2015.
Over one hundred short stories and poems have been published in literary journals and included in twelve anthologies.
Short Story Awards: two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award, first place in the SLO NightWriters contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood.
He reviews for the New York Journal of Books.
His website is http://www.townsendwalker.com